New copies of my book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques are now available from Amazon at $24.95.
This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Collection of Interesting Knives

My friend Charles Riggs (whom I know mostly from email, having met him only once) recently sent me a heavily insured package containing five knives from his collection.

He wrote, "You'll have something to occupy your martial mind for awhile with these, I think. All but the Crowell/Barker are FIGHTING knives, but very different expressions of very different techniques and philosophies. The Steele knife is suited to a soldier, the Mamba to someone fighting Filipino style, the Hissatsu excellent against heavy clothing and armor and the Bowie? Well, it can be any damn thing it pleases at that size!"

Alas, they are not mine to keep, but only to fondle for a while and return. I am an honorable man and Charles is a formidable one so of course I will do so.

Charles is very knowledgeable about knives and I am reprinting his comments from his cover letter. I don't have much to add, but I put my impressions in italics.

1. Hissatu
Weight: 8 oz
Blade Type: Trailing point
Length Overall: 12 inches
Blade Length: 7.25 inches

The Hissatsu is based on what is most likely the most ancient design, being the brainchild of the owner of the Bugei Trading company, James Williams and taken from Japanese traditions. If you haven't already looked at his bio and web site it's worth a reading. The knife features a blade made for slashing, but the tip is very strong for thrusting against hard surfaces because of the manner in which the spine reinforces it. This version is an inexpensive one made by CRKT, but usable nonetheless.

The appeal of a knife is totally subjective. This is a practical knife but it just doesn’t excite me.

2. Crowell/Barker Competition Knife
Weight: 1 lb, 1.6 oz
Blade Style: Hollow ground, drop point
Length Overall: 15 inches
Blade Length: 9 inches

The Crowell/Barker Competition Knife is expressly made for slashing bundles of manila/sisal rope in cutting competitions. You can see demos of these cuttings on the Cold Steel web site. These competitions haven't really taken off or attracted too much public attention, but the knives are interesting. The guys who designed this are two champions who collaborated on it for Browning. While it might not be the best fighting knife of the bunch, it allows the user to focus great cutting power and might be likened to an American Kukri. I sent it because it's another unique expression of the large knives that have been used in the USA since the 18th century. Like many well-designed large knives, its size makes it fearful but it's far quicker than you'd think.

It doesn’t have much personality, but it’s well balanced, well made, and packs a lot of power. Considering that it's available from Amazon for under $100, it's well-worth consideration for anyone in the market for a heavy duty chopper.

3. Blackjack Mamba
Weight: 9.9 oz
Blade type: Hollow ground, swaged, spear point
Length Overall: 13 inches
Blade Length: 7.25 inches

The Blackjack Mamba is a classic collectible, made when the company was still in the USA and turning out high quality knives. The design's features are obvious, especially the belly of the blade that allows the knife to dig in as it's drawn back or across in a slashing attack. It's very light, almost too light, but that makes it fast in the hand and dangerous if the user has the reflexes to guide it quickly. Both it and the David Steele knife came out when Soldier of Fortune was pushing a new surge of interest in edged weapons in the 1970s. The sheaths aren't much, but I'm going to get Kydex made for them someday. I would also tell you that there are some new US-made Blackjack knives being sold at gun shows now, but the quality control of the knives I've handled is only so-so and I wouldn't bother with one.

I agree with Charles that this knife seems too light for its design. The original version was two inches longer and probably heavier.

4. Fer-de-Lance
Weight: 9.9 oz.
Blade type: Double-edged hollow-ground spear point
Length Overall: 12 inches
Blade Length: 6.25 inches (5.5 inches sharpened)

The David E. Steele-designed and Balisong-produced Fer-de-Lance is a pure fighting knife, much in the same vein as the Applegate-Fairbairn dagger of WW2. It's a utilitarian design cut and ground from bar stock, but the handle scales are nicely shaped and when you spend time holding and working with it, its attributes become apparent. It's also very collectible, so don't let it out of your hands. It's another knife made by a company that's shifted around their production, this one being from the higher quality stuff coming out of Japan in their early years.

The designer, David E. Steele, has written a lot of articles on knives as well as the book Secrets of Modern Knife Fighting (1975).  I like the look and feel of this knife a lot—it’s my favorite of the bunch. It’s light and lively in the hand. If it were mine I’d want to dehorn the sharp edges of the quillions.

5. Hell’s Belle
Weight: 1 pound, 0.4 oz
Blade Type: Hollow ground, clip point with sharpened false edge
Length Overall: 17 inches
Blade Length: 11 inches

The last knife is for you to compare to your Cold Steel Bowies. It's a "Hell's Belle" made to stringent specs by Ontario and no longer in production, carried in a "Southern Comfort" Kydex sheath made by River City Sheaths. The Bowie knives designed by bladesmith Bill Bagwell are meant solely for fighting, based on the research that he did in New Orleans in the archives of old fighting schools from the French tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries in that era when a gentleman was expected to know how to duel. They're not camp or utility Bowies, and they have blades that appear much more slender than most of the commercial designs that one finds turned out these days. But when you see the thickness of the spine you'll appreciate that these knives have great power when wielded strongly, and the tips aren't fragile. The sharpened 'false' or top edge allows you to make the snap cut which is part of the Bagwell Bowie repertoire, and that works, believe me. The hilt allows you to trap an opponent's blade, and if you're really good the Spanish notch allows you to break a blade or wrest it from him. The long haft allows for a sabre grip that can be shifted to place the butt in the base of the wielder's palm to allow a thrust that gives the fighter an extra 2-4 inches of reach when done properly in the classic fencing style. The coffin shape gives a good hold without being abrasive to the hand. It's almost more of a short sword in some ways, but it can be carried concealed quite handily in that sheath by simply slipping it into your waistband, and letting the stud keep it from slipping down too far. I'll be interested to see what you think of it versus the Natchez or Laredo Bowies. I have a shorter 9 1/2 inch "Gambler" Bagwell/Ontario Bowie that's expressly intended for concealment, but I thought you might get more of a kick out of this one.

This is an excellent bowie and the sheath too is top quality. Of the bowies I own, my favorite is the Cold Steel Laredo, but I have to admit this feels livelier in the hand. I’m skeptical about the utility of the hooked quillions, though they might prove of some use in a knife duel. (I’m doing my best to stay out of knife duels.) As far as the Natchez, that's just too heavy for me to wield comfortably. I should have done more weight lifting in my youth.

Thank you, Charles!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bowie-Knife Fighting Classes in the 19th Century

Col. Thomas Hoyer Monstery

When I was researching my book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques, I came across a number of modern references to bowie-knife fighting instruction that was available in the 19th century. Yet in my own research, which involved searching thousands of digitally scanned newspapers and books, I was able to find only a single mention of a fencing instructor who also offered classes in the knife.

One of my readers, Phil Crawley, recently wrote to recommend I read The Sword Prince: The Romantic Life of Colonel Monstery, American Champion at Arms, which profiled another man who offered such training. Written by Captain Frederick Whittaker and originally published in 1882, Monstery's biography has recently been reprinted and made available through Hulu by Tony Wolf. This long out-of-print book is so obscure that it is not searchable through Google books, which explains how I missed it. It is a fascinating read.

Monstery, who died in 1902, was a sailor, soldier of fortune, boxer, fencing master, and duelist extraordinaire. His biography describes a number of scrapes he got into, several of them involving the knife. While ashore in Rio de Janeiro as a young sailor, he got into a fight with a slave and killed him by throwing a knife that struck him in the chest. [p. 15] Monstery is said to have been an expert knife thrower, whose technique was different than that used by most. While others held the knife by the point and spun it through the air toward the target, he preferred to hold it by the handle and throw it point first, and "would send it into a board so deep that it required a man's full strength to pull it out." [p. 47]

After he had studied boxing and fencing, he traveled to Italy and Spain to learn to fight with the knife. According to his biography, he found he could beat those from whom he sought instruction; not so surprising, as boxing and fencing provide an excellent foundation for knife fighting. His secret, according to his biographer, was "economy of motion." That is, "In fencing with any weapon, including the fist, that parry is best which takes least time and causes the least amount of motion from the position of 'guard.'"[p. 22]

In 1851, Monstery was set up for an assassination by a love rival and his two cohorts, the three of them armed with daggers. Monstery had only a hickory cane with which to defend himself, but his fencing skill enabled him to fend off the three men, though in warding off their thrusts he suffered three stab wounds in his left arm. [pp. 49-50]

Many of the incidents in the biography are impossible to verify, but Monstery's career as a boxing and fencing instructor is well documented in newspaper articles from the 1860s on, when he ran fencing academies in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. There were several references to his ability with the knife.

This is from a description of an exhibition bout that appeared in the Daily Alta California, (28 November 1863):
The Professor of Arms of the Club [the San Francisco Olympic Club], Colonel T. H. Monstery, then gave an exhibition of the use of the sword and dagger, with the aid of three of his pupils, Messrs. Mel, Johnson and McComb. The bout was opened with a simulated duel with foils, by Mel and Johnson,— Colonel Monstery and Mr. McComb acting as seconds. Two thrusts each were recorded, and then the seconds engaged with the same weapons: the Colonel thrust his adversary twice, and allowed him to make one in return. Then Mel and Johnson were respectively challenged by the Professor to attack him with broadswords, while the dagger only was used to defend, and all the blows were successfully parried by the Colonel with his apparently insignificant weapon.

The Daily Alta California (31 July 1864) carried an advertisement for an exhibition bout in which Monstery and his students would demonstrate "Fencing with Small Swords, Daggers, Rapiers, Broadswords, Sabers, Bayonets, and with Sabre against Bayonet." 

Newspaper advertisements for Monstery's salle d'armes state "Instructions given in the use of the Broadsword, Foils, Bayonet, or any weapon of offence or defence," as well as boxing.

It is in an advertisement in the Daily Alta California (4 January 1870) that we first see knife-fighting lessons specifically mentioned:
FENCING AND BOXING ACADEMY. No. 412 Pine street, near Montgomery. Col. Monstery, instructor in fencing with foil, sword, bayonet, knife, etc. Boxing taught in twelve lessons, by a system that will give efficiency. Classes in colleges or elsewhere attended to. N.B. A select assortment of fencing apparatus and boxing gloves for sale.

In his afterword in the Monstery biography, Wolf reproduces a brochure for  Monstery's "School at Arms" in Chicago around 1890. Among other courses, there is a "Complete Course in Knife Fighting" offered for $15.

More on Monstery here and here

Monday, May 6, 2013

Inside a Sheffield Knife Factory

If you've ever wondered what it looked like in one of the great English knife factories of the 19th century, this silent video should give you a pretty good idea. Titled "Made in Sheffield," it is 13:23 minutes long and was filmed in 1954. Don't let the date fool you--the machinery and manufacturing techniques look very 19th century, as does the tremendous amount of hand labor involved.

We see a craftsman making a small blade for a pocket knife, and later, another assembling dinner knives.  Many of the methods would be the same for bowie knife production.

Because the film is silent, it is hard to understand some of what is going on. The website provides the following explanation:
This is a film made by Mr Ibberson when he was Master Cutler at Sheffield. It shows aspects of the Master Cutler’s Hall and the process of making hand-made cutlery in a small factory.

The film opens with a view over Sheffield Town Hall and the city centre, showing trams and City Hall. In the industrial area of Sheffield, the smoking chimneys of the factories can be seen along the skyline.
There is a close-up of an emblem with a figure of an elephant's head. Inside the Cutler’s Hall, a young woman descends the staircase, knocks on the door of the Master Cutler, and enters. The Master Cutler shows her a book of old records and then a plaque on the wall of previous occupants of the post, going back to 1624 with Robert Sorsby. They look through another old book with records belonging to the previous Master Cutler, showing the 315th Cutler’s Feast of 17th April, 1951. There is a signature of ‘Elizabeth R’ and ‘Philip’. They then look at a collection of coins mounted on a wall and a letter of thanks to M Hunter, Master Cutler, signed by ‘Palmerston’. The two of them go to the main meeting room.
In the next scene, an elderly man works an old forge. Here he bangs a red hot piece of metal into shape on an anvil. He stokes his furnace and works a bellow. There is a close-up of a pen knife blade.
The woman is then shown around by another man, stopping to watch a workman sharpening a blade on a grindstone.
They walk through the factory and watch another workman using an implement with a bow and string. He holds this against his chest to make a small indentation into a piece of metal.
This worker appears to be working on the cases for case knives.
The woman then views a selection of finished pen knives. A workman fashions a blade from red hot steel using a mechanical hammer, and another uses a grinder.
Then a woman polishes blades in one machine, and another uses a machine which holds many blades at once.
Worker pushes blades between two spinning buffing wheels.

 In this close-up, worker appears to be adding rosin powder to a machine that polishes many blades at once.
In another room, a workman attaches handles to the knives, one at a time. These he then checks to make sure that they are straight.
Fitting a handle to a spike-tanged knife blade with a hand-operated press. 

An engraver uses a machine for engraving the maker’s name, and ‘Made in Sheffield.’ This machine engraves several knives simultaneously.
As a worker traces the template, it is engraved on a number of knives simultaneously through the pantagraphic process.
Mr Ibberson and the young woman move into a dining room where they are shown different types of cutlery, from the very small to the very large, possibly by Mrs Ibberson. The film closes with a shot of the table laid out with cutlery.

Title - The End
Written and Produced by Arthur Swinson
Thanks to Kenneth Pantling for directing me to this site.